Mom's visit

This is a long entry, because it was originally four entries. It's all one story from one weekend, though, so let's get it over with. Grab a beer and make yourself more comfortable than I was the whole weekend.


After moving from Seattle to Frisco in 1991, I lost contact with my family because I'm an awful human being that way. Then Dad died, and I was so far out of touch that Mom had to ask the US Social Security Administration if they had my address. SSA forwarded her letter to me, which seems both very sweet and mildly creepy. By the time I got the letter, I'd missed Dad's funeral.

Since then I've been a better boy and remained in touch, calling home once in a while. Why, I even wrote a letter to my mom, once. And now, she's invited herself to visit, and I figured why not? It's just one weekend. Even Mom can't drive me crazy that quick … can she?

So my mom was here in San Francisco (or more accurately, the east bay suburbs) for the weekend just passed, and we didn't make each other nuts or anything. This will be a heartwarming story if I write it right, but also a long story, so grab a beer. Make a sandwich. I'll wait.

♦ ♦ ♦

In our family, there's my mom, two sisters, three brothers, and everyone's assorted spouses, exes, kids, and cats and dogs and therapists. As the zine goes along, assorted aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, in-laws and ex-laws might be introduced as necessary (if you're lucky, it won't be necessary). For now, let's only introduce the immediate family. I love them each and all, but I'm an ass and this is my diary so I'm not holding back.

My dad, RIP, was a well-paid industrial scientist, and a workaholic, so we never went hungry but he always worked late and we were never close. That's my fault as much as his, though; I rarely get close to anyone. Dad was big, balding, and Republican, and always wore a pocket protector. He was smart, maybe the smartest person I've known, so his unwavering Christianity was, to me, the enduring paradox of his life. He was a good pop and a good man, though.

Mom is of the old tradition where a man is always in charge, so she was happily subservient to Dad for the 40+ years they were married. She's an extreme pack-rat with a house full of junk, and she shops at thrift stores, though with Dad's very generous life insurance payout she could afford a daily spree at Nordstrom. She's more Christian than Dad was, and Dad was no slacker at his religion. She's a good mom and a good lady, but she gets on my nerves, and I sometimes suspect it's on purpose.

My oldest sister was never quite right in the head. She married too young, divorced twice, and then became disabled from a failed suicide attempt. She's still fully cognizant inside her head, but she has great difficulty speaking, and it's hard to understand what she says. She lives in a nursing home, and yeah, it's tragic.

My other sister is smart, funny, and kooky in a good way. She's widowed and has two children, a 20-something stoner son, and a smart, sassy teenaged daughter who I suspect is a lesbian. My sister is now "living in sin" (Mom never forgets to use that term) with a new boyfriend I've never met. She makes me laugh, and she might be the only person in the family who doesn't seem to judge me harshly.

My oldest brother is Clay. We were best buddies when we were young, but as young adults Clay's faith in God grew stronger while mine was withering away. Now we're not so close. Over the years he's matured into a family man with a Christian perspective on life and a wholesome sense of humor, and I'm none of the above.

Karen is his second wife, and she's very much his match. They met at church, and I'm guessing they talked a lot about Jesus on their first date, because they still do. They have two sons, both young enough to be cute like they're from a Disney movie. (Clay and Karen are the only ones who get names in my coverage here, because they'll be part of this weekend's story.)

My next brother is mysterious. He's very Christian like Mom and Clay, and he's a music teacher when he can be, but makes his living making bricks at a factory. He's very extroverted (my opposite in that regard) and he probably has more friends than the total number of people whose names I know. He spent some years in prison, but nobody in the family — including him — is willing to talk about why. I have my guess, but it's only a guess.

My youngest brother, two years older than me, was placed with juvenile authorities when he was young, after an ugly incident we all avoid mentioning. My family keeps its secrets, and I guess I'll keep the secret too, since I'll say no more about it here. As an adult, his life has been a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, parole, and then arrest, imprisonment, parole, etc. At the moment, Mom says he's awaiting trial for stealing a car.

So that's my family. Most of them are a little bonkers, and some are a lot bonkers, but being bonkers myself I don't hold it against them.

♦ ♦ ♦

Mom seems much the same as when I last saw her, three years ago — she's still a sweet old lady. Her hair has gotten grayer, and she's more endearing and less annoying than I'd remembered. Maybe she's mellowed, or maybe I have, or most likely she's just easier to take in a three-day dose on rare occasions, than when I lived two miles away, saw her once or twice every week, and there was always a message from her on my answering machine.

It was splendid seeing her over the weekend, but with an asterisk. Mom does most of the talking, to say the least, which is all she lets me say. She told me what everyone in the family is up to, and I care, honestly, even about my nephew who got arrested for drunk driving, even about my cousin's bad roller-skating accident, even about my aunt's hysterectomy that had no complications but still took twenty minutes for Mom to narrate to me.

I care somewhat less, though, when the stories are from outside the family, like my brother's fifth-grade teacher's divorce, and my uncle's brother-in-law's fishing trip, and Mom's neighbor's father's cancer, and her pastor's friend's cat that went missing for a week, and on and on and on. I was tremendously disinterested in those stories, but I listened like the good kid I never really was.

Mom asked some too-personal questions, about girlfriends and would-be wives in my past, and "Have any guests stayed overnight in your room?" I took my pal Louie's advice and answered Mom's questions honestly, or frightened her away by promising to answer honestly if she really wanted an answer. Luckily for both of us, she decided to un-ask most of her more difficult questions.

Several times Mom invited me to come back to Seattle with her, stay at her apartment for a few weeks or months or years or forever, so I could see all the relatives and friends and everyone else I'd left behind. I said maybe, which means no. I did not explain that the purpose of leaving was to leave, or that bringing me back would require handcuffs.

Mom lives in an apartment now, because after Dad died the huge house where I grew up was too big, too empty, and too full of memories. But she hasn't sold that big old house. Instead she's turned it into a homeless shelter, by giving use (but not ownership) of the house to a charity that helps destitute families. Strangers down on their luck now live in the house where I grew up — probably in my bedroom! Not only is this a damned heroic thing to do, it's also something I'm not sure my Dad would approve of — and I know that our neighbors would disapprove — so, way to go, Mom!

That's the big picture of Mom's weekend visit. Now, let's get into the details:

Friday —

On Friday my Mum landed at Oakland Airport, but I was waiting to meet her at the San Francisco Airport. Such a fun afternoon that was. I stood in the crowded lobby looking up at the readerboards, but I couldn't find her flight, because her flight was arriving thirty miles away. I don't drive, so I took transit (bus, BART, and another bus) to get from one airport to the other, while worrying about a 62-year-old woman, on her own in a strange city.

The World Cup is nothing compared to the kicks I gave myself that night, because the whole screw-up was my fault. She'd told me on the phone, "My flight lands at 1:15," but she didn't say which airport and I never thought to ask. It never occurred to me that someone flying to San Francisco would land at Oakland Airport. So I was an hour and a half late picking her up, but Mom was OK and not even angry. When I found her, she was talking about Jesus with some airport proselytizers.

(In my defense I'll say, I came to San Francisco in my van. I've never flown to or from San Francisco, and in three years living here, Maggie last month was my very first visitor, and Mom was my second. So I don't have any experience with the airports or with hosting anyone in San Fran.)

We BARTed to Mom's hotel in Walnut Creek, where I stayed with her for three days. Walnut Creek is a stucco suburb many miles east of San Francisco. And why would someone visiting San Francisco stay way out in the 'burbs? For that I have no answer. If it was up to me, I would've gotten her a short-stay room at my residential hotel in the city, or at a less roachy but more expensive hotel nearby. It wasn't my decision, though.

Anyway, because of me going to the wrong airport, we were running quite late, and Friday afternoon became Friday evening, as Mom and I rode BART to Walnut Creek. It was the first time I'd seen her since Dad died, so our conversation was all about Dad. I cried a little, and Mom cried a lot.

She's still in mourning. I was and still am greatly saddened by Dad's death, but it undoubtedly hit Mom much harder. Maybe harder than I can imagine — for longer than I've been alive, she spent every day of her life with him, raised six kids and built her whole existence around him. Of course it's terribly traumatic for her to go on without him. Many tears were wiped away, with many hugs and many memories about Dad, on the train, and in our six-block walk from the BART station to the hotel.

At the hotel, they had our reservation wrong. It was supposed to be one room with two beds, but they had us down for one room with one bed — jeez, I don't want to get that close to my mother. The desk clerk acted like it was our fault and our problem, and only when I got gruff did he switch us to a room with separate beds. Once we were finally checked in, we called out for pizza and talked about Dad until lights out. Mom cried a lot, I cried a little, and then we hugged and went to bed.

I couldn't sleep, so after Mom started snoring I turned on the TV with the volume real low, and got a minor surprise. Walnut Creek isn't just a boring forty-minute BART ride from San Francisco to nowhere. Maybe because of mountains or maybe they get a discount from the cable company, but all the TV stations were from Sacramento, not San Francisco. So I watched unfamiliar newscasters on Channel 3, instead of my favorites, Dennis Richmond and Elaine Corral on Channel 2.

Saturday —

Friday had been fairly normal but Saturday started getting strange. Mom and I had Breakfast Jacks for breakfast, and our family thanks God for every meal, so Mom said grace at the plastic table before we unwrapped our sandwiches. It was a long grace, and her eyes were closed so I wanted to get a head start unwrapping, but they use really crinkly paper so I had to wait.

The Breakfast Jack at Jack in the Crack is, without a doubt, the finest morning meal yet invented in Fast Food America. Ham, egg, cheese, bun. No condiments necessary (though I like to add catsup). I had five Breakfast Jacks.

While we ate, Mom brought out a large plastic bag filled with photos of all the nieces, nephews, and strangers in the world. Soon she had pictures spread across the table, and by the time every photo had been narrated to me, morning was over and we'd sat in that booth at Jack in the Box for a little less than four hours, but it felt much longer.

I was hungry for lunch, so I bought us Jack in the Box burgers and fries to go, and we returned to the hotel. After lunch Mom sang hymns at me for an hour and a half. She had packed a hymnal, for God's sake, literally. She wanted me to sing along, so for some of the songs I sang along. Mom really wants me to be a Christian, and singing "How Great Thou Art" put a smile on her face, so what the hell.

I tried to engage her in a philosophical discussion about the words to "Onward Christian Soldiers," but Mom would not be philosophically engaged. You'd think a Christian in the 20th Century might be embarrassed to sing a song that glorifies the Crusades, when Catholic warriors killed countless Muslims, Jews, non-Catholic Christians, and probably anyone else who seemed in any way unusual. Nope, no embarrassment. "It's one of my favorites hymns," Mom said, and sang it again.

At about 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, we (finally!) walked to the station and BARTed into the city, where we did typical tourist things in Chinatown, shopping and gawking and eating dinner. We also talked about Dad, so there was more crying.

After we'd eaten, Mom stopped at a phone booth and looked up the address of a local church of her denomination. I didn't even know what she was flipping through the pages for, until she said, "And this is where we'll go to church tomorrow."

Oh, you think I'm going to church? Let the guilt tripping begin, but seriously, church schmurch. I haven't been inside a church in many years. It's all so blessed irrelevant to me, but I suddenly saw the error of my ways:

It was Saturday night. Come Sunday morning, Mom would need to go to church, because Sunday is "the Lord's Day" and she never misses church. She would need my bus and BART expertise to get to whatever church she wanted to attend, so I'd have to accompany her on the train. And once we'd reached her destination then — we'd be going to church together.

Mom always goes to church on Sunday. Always. I was born in the early morning hours on a Sunday, and Mom likes to brag that she was at our church for services later that same morning. I've never known whether that's true or she's violating the ninth commandment for fun, but the point is: My mom never misses church, and she'd planned her trip to San Francisco so she'd be here on Sunday morning.

It was the perfect trap. Arrrrgh, why hadn't I seen this coming?

Still at the phone booth, Mom asked what I think about Jesus Christ. I told her I don't think about Christ much at all. His name is often on my lips, but not in a way Mom would like. I didn't say that, though. We disagreed about me going to church the next day, but without really arguing, and without reaching any consensus.

We didn't talk much on the BART ride back to Walnut Creek, because my mind was spinning. I didn't want to go to church when I was 15 years old, but I had to, because I was fifteen years old. Well, I am no longer 15 years old, so I don't go to church — that's one of the perks of being a grown-up.

And I emphatically did not want to go to church the next day. I'm not a Christian, so why would I go to church?

For my mom, that's why. I looked out the window as the train rolled along, signed over-dramatically, and decided I was going to church the next morning. God damn it. I told myself I wouldn't close my eyes and pretend to pray, wouldn't put any money in the collection plate, but I'd politely sit through a sermon without snickering. For you, Mom. Damn it.

Once decided, I began to dread it. The worship service would be the easy part, actually. The hard part would be Sunday School before church, or whatever they call Sunday School for adults — sitting in a small room with a bunch of strangers, Bibles open, everyone super-sociably sharing scriptures and trading Christian cliches, and everyone shaking my hand and asking, "What church do you usually attend?" and "How long has Jesus been living in your heart?" I don't even know how to spell "ay yi yi" but I was living it. Could I endure a couple of hours in a church without either laughing or losing my mind or punching someone?

Look, I respect freedom of religion. If you want to worship Christ on a cross, or worship a pile of pine cones, you absolutely should have that right. And if I don't want to worship anything, I should have that right, too. I have less important things to do on a Sunday morning than … what I knew I'd be doing the next morning. But I'd be there. I'd been snookered by my mother, and by Jesus.

♦ ♦ ♦

On our walk from BART back to the hotel, Mom and I talked about Dad. She cried a lot, and I cried a little, and at the hotel she gave me a very special gift: a videotape of my father's funeral.

Now, this may seem rude and if so, my apologies, but — I don't want to watch a video of my father's funeral. I didn't say that to my mom, but I did tell her that I don't own a VCR so I can't watch it (which was a lie). Mom thoughtfully promised to make an audiotape of the videotape, and said she'd mail me the cassette. I said thanks, but didn't say that I also don't want to listen to my father's funeral.

I've already said that I didn't know about it when my father died, because I hadn't told anyone in my family my address or telephone number. If I had known of Dad's death, I would've given everyone hugs and spent time with the family, but I wouldn't have attended the funeral. No disrespect for Dad; I just hate funerals. We all grieve in our own ways, and my way doesn't involve sitting through an organized memorial service.

When I was in high school, I went to a friend's funeral — a teenaged girl who'd given up Christianity, became a Buddhist, and died of breast cancer before she was old enough to vote. It was a Christian service, not Buddhist, because her family was Christian. The funeral was for them, not for her. The girl I knew, the funeral's guest of honor, wasn't there. She wasn't even invited. All the kind words spoken weren't about her. They decided to remember the girl they'd hoped she'd be, instead of the girl she was.

And then, years later, my brother-in-law died. He was an absolute atheist who'd had a major impact on my thinking about religion, but like that other funeral, his service was all-Christian, all the way through. The pastor started the service by announcing that although my brother-in-law had made mistakes in his religious life, he'd come to the pastor just days before his sudden death, to tell him he'd "recommitted to Christ." And that's bullshit, and that's the last funeral I've attended, or ever will, until my own (which, by the way, I don't want, but I know my family so what I want won't matter).

Most of what I think about funerals I've told my mom — not this weekend, because it seemed inappropriate, but I've told her in the past. Funerals suck and I don't want one so cremate me please, with no service, or just mince me up to feed the fishies.

And also, about that videotape: I've never heard of videotaping a funeral. Is that something people do nowadays? Would you pop a tape into your VCR to watch a loved one's funeral a second or third time or tenth time, like it's Star Wars? I loved my dad, and I have almost nothing bad to say about him, but videotaping his funeral seems morbidly bizarre to me.

♦ ♦ ♦

Mom also gave me another special gift: eight pairs of Dad's underwear, four pairs of his socks, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, two shirts, his suspenders, and one of Dad's bow-ties. Without asking me whether I wanted this stuff, she'd packed an extra suitcase, to bring hand-me-downs from Dad, and she gave me the suitcase, too.

The bow-tie is a wonderful memento of my father. He wore suits to work five days a week and suits to church on Sundays, but he rarely wore neckties. He was a bow-tie guy. It's a little quirk he had, and I always liked his bow-ties. This one is blue with polka dots. I rarely wear ornaments around my neck, but I'd rather wear a bow than a noose, so I'm keeping the bow-tie. Thanks, Mom. And thanks, Dad.

Most of the rest of these clothes, though, I'll be giving to Goodwill. The pants don't fit, and I remember Dad wearing both these shirts so I'd never wear either, and the socks are fine but they're knee-highs and I prefer shorter socks. I am wearing my dad's underwear, though, as I type this two days later. It's odd to carry my gonads in the same shorts that carried Dad's, but I was a little low on underwear, and these are comfy and mostly unstained.

Sunday —

I barely slept, awoke at dawn, and read a book I'd brought, but mostly I worried about how awful the morning was going to be — going to church. I was hoping the congregants would be shy and aloof, like me, so I wouldn't have to shake everyone's hands and tell too many lies. Hoping the pastor wouldn't ask all the newcomers to introduce themselves. Hoping Mom wouldn't find a way to wangle an invitation to someone's house for dinner after the services. I was hoping, but not praying.

And yeah, I was going to lie. Inside a church, even if someone asks me point blank, I'm not saying I'm not a believer. I'm a rude bastard in many situations, but I'm not going to crap on anyone's religion while I'm in their church, so I'd decided to play the role. I would be the church-going man. I would simply, quietly, and politely endure. I'm tough, I can take it.

Mom kept sleeping, and I kept reading my book. 8:00. We'd been up pretty late the night before. 9:00. There was an alarm clock on the night stand, but she hadn't set it. 10:00. I was getting my hopes up. Finally, at a little before 11:00, Mom began to stir, and I put the book down and pretended to be asleep.

"This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it." That's my mom's favorite Bible verse, and it was the first thing she said when she woke up. Then she saw the clock, and saw that, sadly, we'd slept too late. At the church she'd wanted to take me to, the service was already underway. Mom was disappointed, and I should've felt guilty for letting her sleep so late. But I didn't.

She said it was the first time she'd missed church since her appendectomy, circa 1985. "It must have been God's will," I said, but to me it was a win-win situation: I'd earned Mom-Points because I'd agreed to go to church, but I didn't actually have to go. Ha, ha! And then, Mom pulled out her hymnal and sang more church songs at me, and we watched a sermon on Sacramento TV.

After the TV sermon and a mini-sermon from Mom, we BARTed into the city, and talked about Dad on the way. We ate lunch at the Powell Street McDonald's, and talked about Dad. We walked around Union Square, and talked about Dad. I cried a little, Mom cried a lot, and I gave her several big hugs.

Clay's family was due to join us that evening, so we didn't have time to do much more in the city. Instead we bounced back to BART for another long ride to Walnut Creek, where Clay and Karen and their kids were waiting at the hotel when we arrived. Mom's visit had been planned to coincide with their vacation to California, and she'd be leaving with Clay's family on Monday morning.

Clay and Karen and the kids had checked into a room down the hall, and we all said hello and hugged and talked about old times, and about Dad, and then they wanted to have a Bible study in their hotel room.

Clay and Karen are good people, and I love 'em, so I want to say this kindly, respectfully. They're on a family vacation with their two young boys, and they brought their Bibles. They study their Bibles in the morning, and in the evening — even on their vacation. Other than each other and maybe their kids, God is the most important thing in their lives. This was our first time seeing each other in years, but God was what they most wanted to talk about — and I simply don't speak that language. When Mom went with Clay and Karen and their kids to have a Bible session in their room, I excused myself and read a newspaper on the bed until Ephesians was over.

Their boys are cute, polite, and well-behaved. I think the older kid liked me, but the younger one is too young to remember me from three years ago, and he was unsure about this fat stranger. During our few minutes of conversation, both of the kids twice changed the subject to Jesus/church/the Beatitudes/etc. I won't say that it made me sad, but it made me sigh.

The six of us had a late dinner at some chain restaurant nearby, where the service was all right, the food was all right, and the customers and staff were all white. The overwhelming whiteness made me uncomfortable. I'm white too, but not that white, and I live in a place where white is part of a mosaic. Walnut Creek is like an unpainted canvas.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel. Karen put the kids to bed, and then the grown-ups talked for a while, about books and baseball, and kids and careers, and oh yes, about Jesus. Mom talked about Dad, so we all cried a little, and Mom cried a lot. I gave her another big hug.

As we talked about old memories, future plans, and absent relatives, together in that hotel room and together in our hearts, it was a good feeling. We are still a family. More hugs all around, and then I read my book while everyone else shared a good night prayer.

Monday —

Clay's clan got up at 7:00 for devotions together, and Mom joined them. I didn't, but I heard the hymns through the wall. "Nearer My God, To Thee." "Come thou fount of every blessing." "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty." All the greatest hits. Then they loaded their luggage into the car, and everyone said their goodbyes.

Waving, I watched Mom roll away in the station wagon, with Clay and Karen and the kids. Destination Disneyland, and the rest of their vacation. I'm supposed to see them all again on their way back to Seattle, next Sunday, and I'm looking forward to it. But Christ, I hope it doesn't include church.

♦ ♦ ♦

I spent about half the day writing my entries for July 1, 2, and 3, and spent the second half of the day sprawled across my bed, wearing only Dad's underwear, farting and napping and reading zines.

It's Independence Day, and it's nice to have my independence back. Nice to not be on BART for an hour. Nice to be in San Francisco, not in Walnut Creek. Nice to be in this tiny, roach-infested room at the rez hotel. I love my mom, love my family, but I also love being alone, doing whatever the hell I want to do, and not hearing anything about Jesus.

From Pathetic Life #2
Friday, July 1 - Monday, July 4, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


Pathetic Life 

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